Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. To limit the global temperature rise, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Despite targets such as improving fleet fuel efficiency and IATA pledging to reduce air travel’s CO2 emissions to half its 2005 levels by 2050, the aviation industry continues to be one of the key contributors to global warming.
In 2018, 4.4 billion passengers made journeys by plane, travelling 7.75 trillion kilometres. However, 84 flights taking off every minute worldwide also equates to 859 million tonnes of CO2 emitted by airlines. This represents a contribution of around 2% of global emissions. Therefore, any measure that meaningfully cuts carbon emissions from aviation, could have a major global impact.
Electric planes could be the answer. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been present on our streets for decades, and even on the moon thanks to NASA’s Lunar rover, yet they have been slow to take to the skies.
However, during the 2018 Paris Air Show, Eviation Aircraft, a global manufacturer of all-electric aircraft, unveiled Alice, the first all-electric commuter plane that Eviation says could provide a “radical rethinking of the cost, experience and environmental impact of regional travel”.
Omer Bar-Yohay, Eviation’s CEO explained during the launch of Alice that; ” Operating at a fraction of the costs of conventional jet liners, Alice will redefine how people travel regionally and usher in a new era of flying that is quieter, cleaner and cost-effective. With the introduction of Alice, we welcome an all-new breed of airplanes for the first time in 50 years and it is only the beginning of a bright future for electric aviation and sustainable transportation.”
Alice is able to carry nine passengers for up to 1,046 km using one main pusher-propeller on the tail and one on each wing. This electric plane is well-timed as air carriers around the world seek to replace expensive, aging fleets with electric options that dramatically reduce maintenance and operating costs. For instance, Eviation believe that Alice will reduce carrier costs by up to 70 percent, delivering a cost-competitive, emission-free option for travellers looking for a greener option. As a result, Alice is being championed by the industry as “a harbinger of a new, more sustainable era in aviation”.
The reduction of jet fuel is key to the business case for electric planes. This is because electric planes enable lower emissions, noise and travel costs, making them an attractive alternative to conventional aircraft, particularly because jet fuel is one of the biggest costs for airlines, and yet the price of it has risen sharply over the past few years.
US regional airline Cape Air has already expressed an interest in the all-electric Alice, saying it will order a “double-digit” number of the aircraft to operate on some of its short routes when it is given clearance to take to the skies in 2022.
Eviation is not the only manufacturer developing electric planes. Many global organisations have also cited it as a priority area. For instance, Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing, uses an engine turbine from France’s Safran to power an electric motor for a hybrid craft, and low-cost airline EasyJet is working with Wright Electric, saysit will start using electric aircraft in its regular services by 2027. This is likely to be on short-haul flights, such as London to Amsterdam – Europe’s second busiest route. “Electric flying is becoming a reality and we can now foresee a future that is not exclusively dependent on jet fuel,” says EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren.
In early 2018 Boeing launched a prototype of their electric plane offering, whilst in 2017, Airbus, Siemens and Rolls-Royce unveiled a project to develop a hybrid-electric propulsion system, but the technology does currently have limitations. For example, while the flight range of aircraft such as Alice make them viable for short-haul routes, the technology is not yet there to allow their viability for long-haul. Yet, around 80% of aviation’s CO2 emissions come from flights of over 1,500km (932 miles), according to the Air Transport Action Group.
There are options for servicing longer routes by planes that use a mix of conventional and electric power, enabling them to cut CO2 emissions significantly by switching on the electrical component of their propulsion at the key points in a flight – take-off and landing. For example, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens are working on the E-Fan X programme, which will have a two megawatt (2MW) electric motor mounted on a BAE 146 jet. It is set to fly in 2021.
However, alongside technological limitations are the safety and reliability issues that must be addressed before electric aircraft are adopted by commercial airlines. Because, just as the electric car has yet to achieve a critical level of public confidence, the perceived safety, reliability and efficiency of electric planes will have a significant impact on consumer trust in new aircraft.
Eviation has set 2022 as when regular customers can buy a ticket for an all-electric regional commuter flight whilst Lilium, an “urban ai mobility” jet, or electric air-taxi, says its first “fully functional” jet is forecast to take off in late 2019 and by 2025, Lilium customers are expected to be booking on-demand electric air-taxis. In addition, Uber’s electric taxi eVTOL is expected to be demoed in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2020 and be commercially available by 2023.
However, experts believe that realistically, true electric passenger flights taking a plane-full of passengers from New York to London are 20 years off. As MagniX’s Ganzarski said, “so much needs to happen” to get to that point. Yet, if early models of electric planes do well in their testing and demo stages, electric planes could be a game-changer, especially for the battle against climate change.